At the April meeting of JASNA Louisville – which I am thrilled to be a member of — Dr. Glynis Ridley gave a talk on trade with the West Indies during Jane Austen’s time, specifically as it related to Mansfield Park. It was a fascinating topic on numerous points, one of which was the real life story of Dido Belle and her “sister/cousin” Elizabeth, as famously depicted in the painting below.
The 1778 painting is by an unknown artist (Attributed to Johann Zoffany) and shows Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825). The original hangs in Scone Palace, Perthshire in Scotland, and is owned by the current Earl of Mansfield. Aside from the bare details, and what can be gleaned from the portrait, scant is known about the lives or personalities of Dido or Elizabeth.
The short version is that Dido was an illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman known as Maria Belle. Dido was sent to live in the household of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who was Lindsay’s uncle and thus Dido’s great-uncle. She was brought up as a free young gentlewoman at Kenwood House at the same time as her great-uncle, in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice, was called on to rule on cases affecting the legitimacy of the slave trade.
You can read more historical details on these websites: Wikipedia and People of Color in European Art. Or download Dido Elizabeth Belle_ a black girl at Kenwood, a 5-page PDF article by Gene Adams. On The Brimstone Butterfly is an excellent post with numerous images that covers great detail about Dido, as well as the Mansfield link to slavery abolishment in England.
So fascinating is the mystery around Dido Belle and her unusual at the time integration into a noble, white English family, a movie has been made. Naturally! Released to limited theaters on May 2, the film will gradually open to more theaters throughout May and June. Fox Searchlight Blog has dates and cities listed, updates added as they happen.
From the official page on Fox Searchlight website–
BELLE is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed race daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). Raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson), Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet her status prevents her from the traditions of noble social standing. While her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) chases suitors for marriage, Belle is left on the sidelines wondering if she will ever find love. After meeting an idealistic young vicar’s son bent on changing society, he and Belle help shape Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice to end slavery in England.